Fighting for air to breathe in his smoke-filled apartment, Thomas Gauthier leaned out a second-story window as he called 911.
Minutes earlier, he awoke and smelled something “funny,” a burning odor. He went into the smoky living room, then the bedroom. He opened the door and saw smoke in the area of the downstairs garage apartment. He wondered about the condition of his neighbor, not knowing if he was home or not.
“I wasn’t worrying about myself. I was worried about the neighbor downstairs,” Gauthier said.
He felt dizzy and poked his head out a window opening. He went back inside for a moment, then hung out the window to call for help.
At 6:39 a.m. Tuesday, dispatchers announced a call about a structure fire at 230 E. Second St. At Fire Station No. 1, located at the southeast corner of the University of Central Oklahoma, Capt. Mike Smith, firefighter Justin Mann, driver Travis Haddock and relief driver Jeff Thompson got into Engine 1.
Before sunrise, when the temperature was below freezing and fog was reducing visibility, Haddock steered Engine 1 down Second Street, along the UCO campus, toward the address, which is near the downtown area.
“We got information on the radio on the way there saying there was smoke coming out, obviously a working fire,” Thompson said.
At the scene, Battalion Chief Doug Hall had Lt. Chris Denton do a quick walk-around and assess the situation.
When he arrived, Thompson saw smoke coming out around the victim hanging out of the window. They didn’t know the exact location of the fire, which could have been in that room; it could have flashed, Thompson said.
“He didn’t look conscious,” Thompson said of the victim. “Obviously you could tell he wasn’t doing very good. At that point it’s all the same effort no matter what kind of condition he’s in. We were trying to hustle. That’s why we didn’t wait on the ladder.”
Edmond Fire Lt. Brian Rowell said enough units were at the scene to rescue the victim and address the fire simultaneously. They included Capt. Jeff Zelnicek, driver Ryan Barrett, firefighters Josh Hillis and Chris Channel, Lt. Euel Davis and driver Lindy Simpson. Rowell said as is always the case rescuing a victim is the top priority.
Near a fence, Denton and Edmond Police Officer Page Hussey interlocked fingers and hoisted Thompson up to the roof of the downstairs apartment.
Thompson went to the victim, who appeared to be semi-conscious, hanging with both of his arms out through the window opening. He wasn’t wearing a shirt, but he was wearing pants. Thompson grabbed the victim’s belt and got him out through the window.
They waited at the peak of the roof for a few seconds and by that time a 24-foot extension ladder was in place nearby. Firefighter Paul Kress, a 26-year veteran, said Thompson pulled the victim out of the heat, out of the smoke.
Kress climbed the ladder to the roof and helped get the victim to the ladder. Driver Ed Lahr helped stabilize it as Kress descended.
“You face him towards you and you’re standing on the ladder and he sits on your lap here,” Kress said gesturing toward his lap as he sat at the conference table in Fire Station 1. “Then you go down the ladder. If you start getting into trouble you can lean forward and hold yourself against the ladder. You’ve got to do it in a controlled way.”
The victim was passing in and out of consciousness. Lahr and some other personnel were there to help get him off the ladder onto the ground. They took him to a spot away from the fire and medical equipment was brought in.
Lahr and others were talking to the victim, trying to assess his condition. They started him on oxygen, wrapped him in blanket and sat him up in an engine. Fire Department paramedics were among those at the scene. Kress saw the victim sitting in the engine.
“He was looking pretty good,” Kress said.
It was the first true rescue for even the veteran firefighters, and they said it was a rewarding experience. They were quick to note they were just doing their job and that it was a team effort. The cause of the fire is believed to be a small overheated refrigerator.
Gauthier, who is new to the area and had lived in the apartment for about a month, was taken to OU Medical Center-Edmond. At the hospital, he prayed for the firefighters and for his neighbor, who was not home at the time the fire started. He was back at his apartment by mid-morning.
Gauthier said he lost all of his clothing in the fire. But that’s not the most important thing.
“I thank God for those guys helping me out,” he said of the first responders. “I could have passed out inside the apartment. I could have died.”
Gauthier, who has been provided transitional living quarters, said he has been working part time with Turning Point Ministries while he looks for a full-time job. He has also received some help from the First Presbyterian Church of Edmond, where he has been a regular the past few weeks, and the HOPE Center of Edmond.
firstname.lastname@example.org | 341-2121, ext. 108